6 Feb 2018

Thoughts while visiting the US

Despite my desire to visit friends and family, I try to avoid travel to the US because some aspects of "American culture" distresses me. (These general statements do not mean there are not many important exceptions.)

First is the obvious problem with cities dominated by cars, which makes them noisy, polluted, ugly and dangerous. I prefer Amsterdam's (relatively) silent beauty.

Second Americans are friendly but they can be boring or boorish. In some ways, they are not as interesting to talk to because they are working too much to pause or take holidays, worried about money and other sources of insecurity, and too far away to see easily (unless you want to drive 30 minutes). The Dutch are harder to "grab" spontaneously, but more interesting once you get them.

Third (and related), problems with alienation, tribalism and isolation are really problematic when it comes to managing, protecting and extending the commons that citizens all share. Commuters are encapsulated in cars, one per vehicle, as they pass through streets looking only ahead. The homeless living under the highways occupied by these commuters are hidden in some ways, but obvious as a hint of social failure. Suburban sprawl makes it even harder for people to mix, as folks are likely to sort into enclaves of shared minimalistic values (green or brown lawns? boats or pools?)

In some way, America is the best place for independent people to live if they want freedom to consume, work or associate with whoever they want, but this sort of isolation is not longer balanced by the community spirit that migrants and "small town folks" used to enjoy. American's growing insecurity (in spite of booming employment and asset prices) comes from unknown risks (medical bankruptcy, violence, mass-produced low-quality goods) that political dysfunction and corruption are worsening.

America is good at freedom and competition but not security or cooperation, and those latter characteristics are really important if you're worried about your health, getting old, security from violence and natural disasters, and so on.

Is this really a problem for Americans or just for me (a "traitor" to European socialism)? Although I have great respect for the role of institutions and path dependency, I am also sure that institutions and culture can change in a short time (5-10 years) in ways that can bring a lifetime of benefits or costs. Look at the legalization of gay marriage for the former and the growing problem of political civil war for the latter. (Other problems of racism and poverty are taking longer to improve, if they are at all.)

So, yes I think these problems are visible to Americans, who would wish to address some of them. That task is the role of politicians leaders, but most of the current crop (Trump and the Republicans are making the Democrats look good) are terrible.* Sadly, I think that Americans, like people all over the world, are able to adapt to stress and live "contented" lives despite some obvious failures around them. That's how commuters are willing to sit in traffic for a few hours per day, how the obese think it's perfectly normal that they cannot fit into an airline seat, and why most people just shrug as the government gives tax breaks to rich people and allows Russian agents to interfere with elections.

Bottom line: America has some obvious problems that are weakening its quality of life for citizens and attraction as a destination for migrants.
* It would be great if Trump would take the stock market fall as a hint to pay attention to what he says and does, but that's beyond wishful thinking for a lying crooked narcissistic traitor. (We know that he's 3 of 4 of those. When will we add "traitor" to list of proven weaknesses?)